Souhegan senior beats adversity to graduate with class

AMHERST – When Olivia Smith was a sophomore, she doubted she would be able to finish high school, let alone go to college.

But on Friday evening, June 2, she will graduate with Souhegan High School’s Class of 2017, and in September, she’ll attend Keene State College.

What seems like fairly typical achievements for most people seem miraculous to Smith, because through most of her school career she had been plagued by anxiety so severe, it would send her running out of the classroom.

In fifth grade, she was in the nurse’s office every day. In sixth grade, she started losing her hair.

Medication helped sometimes, but sometimes it didn’t. Her moods would see-saw between confidence and despair, and sophomore year was the worst.

“I thought I wasn’t good enough because my mom couldn’t care for me,” Smith said during an interview in the office of school social worker Sheelu Joshi Flegal. Smith said she has lived with her grandparents her entire life, and they obtained full custody about 10 years ago.

During that low period in October of her sophomore year, Smith said she entered the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. It began to dawn on her how worried and distraught her problems were making her grandparents.

Around that time, too, she began piecing together an identity she could live with, that was in tune with her deepest needs. On the internet, she found information on meditation, the mind-body connection and the idea of chakras, from Eastern religions. They all hit a chord. She learned to use breathing to center herself and started braiding dreadlocks into her hair.

“I found my style,” said Smith, who will turn 18 soon.

She also made good friends, found a supportive boyfriend and learned to shrug off people whose negativity brought her down.

Through it all, her grandparents, Bev Smith-Gaulin and Bob Gaulin, stood by her.

“I am extraordinarily proud of her,” Smith-Gaulin said. “She is a very strong young lady.”

“My grandmother encouraged the meditation,” Smith said, “and helped me be a happier person and try to open up,” and also to not feel embarrassed about herself.

English teacher Frank Gallo pushed her to apply to Keene State and helped her see herself in new ways, she said.

For her senior project, Smith chose to research the benefits of balancing the seven chakras, and when she gave her 20-minute PowerPoint presentation to teachers, students and community members, she was buoyed by the positive response. For courage, she kept in mind the elephant-headed Ganesh, the Hindu god of wisdom and success and destroyer of obstacles.

Smith’s big loves are children and nature, and she’s thrilled that at Keene State College, she will major in elementary education, with a possible double major in environmental science.

“I have seen tremendous growth” over the last four years, said Joshi Flegal, remembering a ninth-grader who seemed completely closed up.

“It’s been great to see her find positive ways to deal with problems and develop coping skills that work,” the social worker said. “She came through a lot of adversity. … Her grandparents are amazing people.”

Smith’s goal is to become a “self-actualized” person, a concept developed by Abraham Maslow, the leading figure in the tradition of humanistic psychology. She defines “self-actualized” as not depending on the opinions of others.

“It’s an ambitious goal,” she said, because she said only 2 percent of the population achieves that elevated state of being.

But what matters most now is that she finally knows she has a choice, and what she has chosen is to make the best to her life and be a positive force in the lives of other.

When her friends are feeling down, Smith tells them, “There is always a way out, and they don’t need to feel helpless.”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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